Democracy =/= Capitalism: Christmas, and child labour

After a year of record political unrest, we are winding down for a bit of “peace” (if you can call it that, maybe not in our house!); a christmas breather. It is going to be a very unusual christmas for me this year, for two reasons: firstly, because I am in the process of losing someone I am very close to to a form of terminal cancer, and secondly, because it comes after a year in which my world view has been “sharpened”, where I struggle to switch the politics off.

The last year has seen people taking to the streets in record numbers: from the massive TUC demonstration in March, to the summer riots, from the springing up of occupations around the country to the growing crescendo of public sector strikes, the voice of dissent is growing. Add to this that the UK is only a tiny part of a worldwide picture: the dischord is globalised and being felt from continent to continent.

It has been quite a politically charged year for me too. This time last January I had strong political beliefs but wasn’t particularly active: the mounting evidence of the injustices of the austerity drive has led me to the point of thinking “if not me, who?”, and in the space of a year I have gone from political near inertia to building a 2000 strong petition and taking to the streets with my slutwalk sisters to protest the culture of victim blaming, speaking in front of a few thousand in Birmingham at the June 30th strike ralley, speaking on a panel about activism at the UK Feminista summer school, writing a chapter on the working class right wing for the Labour Left red book, and taking on the role of regional women’s officer for UCU. As a result of this, combined with my vocal social media presence, I have made some great new connections, but I have also put myself in the line of fire for a good deal of negative attention, both from people I know and people I don’t. (Anyone looked at their hidden “other” messages on facebook yet? Wished I hadn’t when I found them the other day). People who know me well and know my character and beliefs know that if there is one thing I hate more than almost anything, it’s conflict. I’m naturally a people pleaser and in most cases would do almost anything rather than disagree. So it is a sign of how bad things really are when I am putting myself through the emotional stress of a year of public disagreement.

Many people automatically assume I’m a revolutionary. I’m not, I’m a social reformist – I don’t believe in revolution as an effective method for bringing change, unless we are talking non-violent direct democratic revolution rather than bloody insurgence. For some reason (probably the effect of tabloid-think grouping all dissenters from liberals right through to Stalinists into one simple package) some people think I’m a pro-soviet communist! Clearly, I’m not. I have no more support for a handful of State figures holding the majority of the resources than a handful of anyone holding the majority of the resources, that’s why I’m a marxist. I’m a marxist because I believe in the analysis that money is essentially an illusory system whereby consensus about the relative worth of the different roles people fulfil in society inevitably keeping a huge number in poverty. I’m also a liberal.

I tweeted about this a few weeks ago, saying something along the lines that I was gravely concerned that lots of people (marxists) seemed to believe that we were living through a time in which capitalism was in its last throws, commenting that I believe capitalism is not in crisis, and that it is the checks on capitalism which are actually at risk. I had a brief exchange with Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick, who commented that one of if not the biggest problems is that people lack the imagination to see beyond Soviet communism as an alternative to capitalism. We also agreed that the fundamental problem in terms of conceptualisation is that the majority of the public assume that capitalism and democracy are synonymous rather than separate and often conflicting things. So for most, while they sympathise with criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, they assume that consumer choice is the freedom they must preserve in order to avoid a totalitarian state regime. As long as we have capitalism, we have democracy, and vice versa, therefore we must not complain too much about the obvious inequalities of capitalism because these are the necessary price for freedom.

Of course, the key issue overlooked in this argument is that it only sees the western consumer as involved in the process of capitalism and democracy. It ignores the key issue that it is only a pocket of civilisation which capitalism is working for; that for millions globally capitalism does not mean a vote, it means sweated labour, child labour, poverty, starvation, epidemics of treatable illnesses, slavery and death. The West does not have its consumer freedom and the benefits of consumer choice in some sort of bubble from the unfortunate goings on in the rest of the world, but as a direct consequence. It is not democratic for a child to go blind before the age of six or lose fingers in machinery to make meaningless disposable items for some other more fortunate child elsewhere, because who ever would possible get a majority vote through for that to happen, and yet it happens, daily, and because of the ability of capitalism to mask these very undemocratic processes under the guise of consumer freedom, we continue to support them just by not trying for change.

I’ll try to write more about this at a later date, as I really belief that it is only in tackling globally sweated labour that capitalism can properly be regulated and kept in check, but I think the biggest problems in tackling this issue are the following:

1) Sweated labour is ironically a class issue. There is a cultural expectation to provide your child with a magical (expensive) christmas and while the better off can afford to do this in (not always) more ethical ways, for many at the bottom in UK society struggling to keep up with the demands of a child already being socialised to continually want, the cheap items sweat-shops provide allow for a guilt-free christmas.

2) Psychologically, the sweat-shop workers who produce so much of the never-ending chain of goods which feed the western lifestyle exist in a place so distant in the western mindset that they might as well be imaginary. When we perceive cultural similarities, we find it easy to think about and imagine ourselves in a place that is geographically very distant (New Zealand, for example), but the mechanisms of capitalism mean that we see a product as a reified thing, separate from any of the processes and more crucially the people involved in its production. 21st century capitalism allows or even encourages us to think that the starting point for a product is the shop floor. To think otherwise is to risk imagining the self as part of an exploitative chain in which ultimately you are benefitting from child/slave/sweated labour, and it’s not a happy place to be.

3) The biggest issue is a combination of current democratic processes leaving a feeling of impotence, combined with a massive scale version of what social psychologists call the “bystander effect”. The current political system is not fit for purpose, in that it does not allow for direct democracy or empowerment. I’m constantly trying to get people more involved politically but why should they be anything other than apathetic given the lack of ability to influence what is in place? I’ve spent months writing to my MP, Chris Kelly, with barely a couple of e-mails to show for it. People are (in my opinion) basically good but programmed to make the least possible effort; the current system encourages and feeds off a feeling of powerlessness which allows the elite to continue to control the majority of how society works. Add to this that the more people who can do something in any one situation, the weaker the moral obligation felt by the individual to get involved. For example, when social psychologists get someone to collapse in the street and one person is passing, that person will generally help. However if a person collapses in front of a large number of people help is much less likely: diffusion of responsibility has taken place where all present both assume that others will step in and feel vindicated of responsibility should this not be the case. On a much bigger scale, I think exactly the same thing happens with child labour, and I’ve certainly been responsible for ignoring my conscience in favour of this belief in powerlessness and blamelessness over the years.

So, this year I’m attempting a child/sweated labour free christmas – I’m buying from these organisations/sites, and hoping for a new year where the world wakes up to the clear distinction between capitalism and democracy: * edit: it has been brought to my attention that oxfam are currently involved in some questionable practices including unpaid internships and participation in workfair. Whilst I would not suggest any boycot because of the numbers of industries relying on oxfam as a buyer I will publish details of any campaigns to address these issues soon.


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